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The Vietnam War — Bill Furan, leading combat patrols

I interviewed Bill Furan in January 2006 at his Tyler home and mourned his passing in 2017. We’ve been learning about Bill’s service in Vietnam to help us better understand the impact of the Vietnam War on our region.

Bill was born in Tracy, but moved to Marshall with his family and graduated from Marshall High School in 1962.

He enlisted in the Army in 1967 after receiving his draft notice. After he completed Basic Training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri and advanced infantry training at Fort Gordon, Georgia; the Army sent him to Airborne School and the Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) Course at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Bill’s final leadership training involved serving as a squad leader with an infantry training unit at Fort Lewis, Washington. While there he received assignment orders to a combat unit in Vietnam.

The Army flew Bill to Vietnam in a commercial aircraft filled with troops. He arrived May 21, 1968, and four days later began serving as an infantry squad leader in Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment of the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Bill’s company was in the field for most of his year in Vietnam, either patrolling in the lowlands or in the jungle-covered hills and peaks of Vietnam’s Central Highlands (GI’s called patrolling “humping the boonies”) or doing combat assaults from helicopters.

As a squad leader, Bill prepared and led his squad of 10 men and a radio telephone operator (RTO) on these patrols and combat assaults.

The squad members each packed about 85 pounds of weapons, equipment, ammunition, food and water when they headed out on foot for a combat patrol or boarded helicopters for a combat assault. Once in the field, helicopters resupplied them with food and ammunition every three days

Bill’s squad did a lot of helicopter combat assaults.

“(W)hen I was there we must have done 60 combat assaults, of which about 25 of them were hot LZs — we were taking rounds coming in.”

Bill described how he organized his squad for a combat assault.

“(Y)ou could only put so many guys on a Huey, six infantrymen, so we were on three different choppers. I had five of them with me and the chopper ahead of me always had another five and maybe the chopper behind me would have a couple. I always kept the RTO with me. Once I hit the ground, they always saw the RTO. Always rally around the RTO because Sergeant Furan’s got the radio. Sometimes it didn’t happen right away because they were taking rounds and they had to hit the ground until it was safe for them to get over there. But eventually everybody would get together and you’d have some control of them again.”

One day with the helicopters stood out in Bill’s recollection.

“We did six combat assaults in one day. They tried to land as many as they could at a time — helicopters coming in formation and land all at the same time and then everybody disembarked and another series, a wave of helicopters would come in. We could put a company down in (Bill snapped his fingers).”

He continued, “(E)ventually we hit a village on the coast and we took a lot of fire when we landed. One of the choppers with our wave — three or four choppers away — landed on a mine and exploded. We were scared and I kept my men down because we couldn’t see any specific fire. Eventually we went into the village. We found a bunch of tunnel systems that they used. Everywhere you went over there they had tunnels. We had no idea where they (the enemy) were, to be truthful. They could pop up anywhere.”

Bill also explained that sometimes danger came from your own, inexperienced troops.

“We were in the Central Highlands and on a very steep mountain. I went up to (a new soldier) and talked to him, ‘You’re going to be in my squad. My name’s Sergeant Furan. We need a grenadier and that’s going to be you.’ He says, ‘Yeah, I know how to fire ’em.’ I said, ‘You never put a round in it unless Sergeant Furan tells you to. You just pay attention to what I say and you’ll be all right around here.'”

Bill continued, “I went back down the hill to the rest of my squad and told them to get ready because we were going to be humping out pretty soon. And he puts a round in that sucker — I’m halfway down the hill — and ‘Pfoop’ the round flies by me; hits a tree; bounces off; and goes down the hill. It didn’t explode because they have to go so far before they are armed. I was just lucky. I went running up that hill and I started beating on that kid until they pulled me off him. I said, ‘Don’t you ever do that again!’ From then on this kid did whatever I said. You could get killed by your own over there. It was a dangerous place”

Bill’s company was in the field constantly with only short breaks at the battalion base camp.

“We would come back every 45 to 60 days and stand down for three days. The company would always have a big steak fry and we would just kick back a little bit — take a breather.”

The Lyon County Museum is organizing an exhibit about the impact of the Vietnam War on Lyon County. If you would like to help share Vietnam experiences or help with the exhibit, please contact me at prairieviewpressllc@gmail.com or call Jennifer Andries at the museum at 537-6580.

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